Derry to Grianan Fort to Malin Head

Your GPS will fail you. It will always fail you. A woman of faith, you will continue trying to use it anyway, the way you sometimes pray or sing old hymns, probably until your dying day, at which point you will go to the horizonless purgatory reserved for the terminally lost.

Despite this, actively in spite of this, you will find Grianan Fort, following paths more appropriate to Br’er Rabbit than to your tiny, abused vehicle. Upon arrival you will feel almost glad for the overcast day because otherwise the three-county view and the sun shining off Lough Foyle would be too much, like beholding the face of all the river gods of Ulster at once.

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Emboldened by your modest success and a full tank of gas you will abandon your craven urge to return to Derry and instead follow the brown signs that have become your religion-by-conversion, to Malin Head, because if a sign claims the northernmost point in Ireland to be “This Way!” it sounds like a dare. You will take other signs as good omens: you will be cheered by memories of a previous sojourn in Burnfoot as you pass through, stymied but strangely reassured by a sign welcoming you to “Amazing Grace Country”.

But the brown signs, like all your other gods, will abandon you shortly. You won’t care. Still high off your fort find and laboring under the delusion of your own moral compass’s power, you will go where your gut tells you. Your gut will bring you to Illies, which is NOT Malin Head. But a new sign, a white sign, will direct you close-to-but-not-quite back the same way you came, to the relief of your brave fool ego.

Your humility will be rewarded with a stop in Carndonagh for a croissant and for the sake of your bladder, because, let’s face it, you’ve been driving around for hours. You will meet a young man from Belfast wearing a bright yellow “Walk to Stomp Out Cancer” t-shirt and smoking a cigarette in front of the tea shop. He will appreciate how you note the irony. He will have been walking all month long with friends from Mizen Head to Malin Head to raise money for the cause. You will give him ten Euro and jokingly offer him a ride the remaining nineteen kilometers which he will refuse, for though he is a smoker he is not a cheater, you middle-aged Eve on wheels.

You will resume refreshed. You will be encouraged: each driver who nearly runs you off the road will do so with a smile and a wave and you will smile and wave in return, because this is how it is done in Donegal; each dog that chases your car will do so joyfully and with a minimum of animosity; each clap of warning thunder will sound like applause for your nimble maneuvering around these narrow back road mazes. If you are tempted to sigh you will remember that Macha ran faster than the horses on her own two feet and carrying twins.

Malin Head will reveal itself easily once you reach the coast, where an ugly 19th Century British tower and a few out buildings originally constructed to defend the northern coast from a small man with plans outsize of his stature are the only blights on the landscape which was once Queen Banba’s untarnished crown.

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Looking beyond the tower and down you will see the blue sea and somewhat closer at hand the messages written in white stones on green grass for those who dare – or stumble – so far North, proclaiming you are in “EIRE” and more precisely “DONEGAL” as well as the names and loves of a hundred other semiliterate masons. You will see that Leah and her dad have almost finished spelling out her name in letters as high as she is, at ten-years-old, tall.

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You are as far North as you have ever been in Ireland. You will want to go North-er.

Your way will be blocked by wood fencing and rusted barbed wire. You will not remember when your last tetanus shot was, but this fact will not give you much pause. It is an easyuponefootoverandtwistandanotherfootoveranddown with no one around to see your awkward landing except those French tourists en masse up by the English tower (Bonaparte would be proud).

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You will walk as far as you can without walking on water, filling your pockets with stones picked at whim and random to make your own mark, and a little shiver in the spine will show you the spot to begin, on the far side of the hill facing the uttermost north. This is where people of more private nature will have left their missives of love and being and prayer to be bathed in salt air and illuminated by northern lights. You will think it is an excellent place to leave a letter for Santa, but instead you will make a simple spiral, symbol of your own circumambulation around the globe, around your questions, around your self.

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You will place a rock of different stripe in the very center, given to you by a dear friend before you left the States, on which she has written words of encouragement: love, inspiration, courage, joy, strength, wonder. You will have almost lost this rock many times on your travels due to your habit of keeping it in a ready pocket like a Connemara worry stone. You will muse that’s just the way it is with the things you carry on your travels: magic rocks, wallets, passports, hearts. These things are always on your person, necessary, ready, and vulnerable.

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That’s when it will hit you: not only how far North you are, but how far you are from everything and everyone you know with any intimacy. And this realization, far from filling you with fear, will thrill you. The wind will do its whipping best, and make songs in your ears and hair and even pick tunes out of the unnatural nylon of your raincoat. One realization will lead to another:

The obstruction of the elements by your own clumsy body is not an intrusion but part of a greater music which transforms you with its grace.

Like it happens in these kinds of stories, the wind will calm and the clouds part, and you will know it is time to go. On your way back to the car, as you nannygoat up the hillside a different way than you came down, you will find one more message.

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And though you will not know who left it you will know it is for you and you will know that it is true.

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